Racing Against Time
Freeing creative ideas from copyright protections that last too long is critical to the future of innovation and business in the information age, writes columnist Lawrence Lessig.In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended the term of existing and future copyrights by 20 years—from 75 to 95 years for corporate works, and life plus 50 to 70 years for literary works by authors. This was the eleventh time in 40 years that Congress extended copyright terms. Its effect is to stop, or "toll" the passing of copyrighted work into the public domain. When it expires, the public domain will have been tolled for 39 out of 55 years, or 70 percent of the time since 1962. These perpetual extensions of existing terms harm Internet growth. They make it harder for content to be deployed on the Internet; they increase the cost of innovation. Thus, in a constitutional challenge to the Sonny Bono Act, argued before the Supreme Court in October, the Internet was offered as Exhibit 1 against the statute. The Internet, the court was told, makes it critically important that copyright terms actually be, as the Constitution requires, "limited."
This is a hard argument to make. I know, because I argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court in October, on behalf of plaintiffs who depend upon the public domain for their livelihood. It is difficult for lawyers and for businesses to see how the Internet changes things—hard for lawyers because they are typically far removed from the Internet, and difficult for businesses because they often dont see just how the law really regulates. But it is crucial for the future of innovation and growth that both sides come to see why a new technology makes an original constitutional value so much more important.